Best nonfiction 2005
THE WORLD IS FLAT: A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY, by Thomas L. Friedman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
In this his third book on global trends, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman describes the leveling process taking place across planet Earth, driven by new technology and software. Friedman's analysis is simple, practical, and rich in insight. (4/5/05)
BLINK: THE POWER OF THINKING WITHOUT THINKING, by Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown, $23.95)
New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell decodes the science of rapid cognition in this work in which he analyzes snap judgments - the split second decisions we so often make with only the subtlest of clues. (1/4/05)
WHEN COMPUTERS WERE HUMAN, by David Alan Grier (Princeton University Press, $35)
For two centuries before the development of computers, there was a class of workers - mostly women - who served as the human drudges of mathematical calculation. This book tells their stories. (7/5/05)
MISS LEAVITT'S STARS, by George Johnson (Atlas Books/W. W. Norton, $22.95)
This biography of Henrietta Swan Leavitt tells the life story of an exceptional example of a human computer (see review above). Leavitt worked at the Harvard University Observatory in the 1880s, and although largely forgotten today, discovered the calculations required to measure the galaxy and map the universe. (7/5/05)
HIS OLDEST FRIEND: THE STORY OF AN UNLIKELY BOND, by Sonny Kleinfield (Times Books, $24)
This lovely tale of an unlikely friendship between a nonagenarian and the teenager hired to keep her company first appeared in The New York Times. Times reporter Sonny Kleinfield fills the story out beautifully in the book-length version. (9/20/05)
THE LOST GERMAN SLAVE GIRL, by John Bailey (Atlantic Monthly Press, $25)
Historian John Bailey tries to unravel some of the mystery surrounding the case of Sally Miller, believed to have been a German immigrant forced into slavery in the American South in the early 1800s. (1/25/05)
THIRTEEN WAYS OF LOOKING AT THE NOVEL, by Jane Smiley (Knopf, $26.95)
This lengthy love letter to the novel is worth buying just to get to the list of the 101 books that Pulitzer Prize- winning author Jane Smiley read for her research. It's a delicious, eclectic compilation and will give book clubs ideas for months to come. (9/13/05)
THE LADY AND THE PANDA, by Vicki Constantine Croke (Random House, $25.95)
This is the true story of how a 1930s New York socialite trekked Tibet in search of a panda cub. The ending is not a happy one, but the telling of it makes for a grand and surprising adventure. (8/9/05)
THE CHOSEN, by Jerome Karabel (Houghton Mifflin, $28)
Who gets accepted into Ivy League schools? It's not necessarily those students who are the best and the brightest. Karabel, a sociologist (and Harvard grad) details the history of Ivy admissions. (11/1/05)
GIRL SLEUTH: NANCY DREW AND THE WOMEN WHO CREATED HER, by Melanie Rehak (Harcourt, $25)
Here's the real story about the identity of the creator(s) of the world's best-loved girl detective. Nancy 's fans won't want to miss it. (10/4/05)
MARLEY & ME, by John Grogan (William Morrow, $21.95)
The funny, touching tale of life with a difficult dog. (11/1/05)
WHEN TRUMPETS CALL: THEODORE ROOSEVELT AFTER THE WHITE HOUSE, by Patricia O'Toole (Simon & Schuster, $30)
Theodore Roosevelt was only 50 years old when he retired as a two-term president of the United States. This is the engaging story of what he did with the rest of his life - including his crushing defeat in the 1912 presidential race. (3/22/05)
BECOMING JUSTICE BLACKMUN, by Linda Greenhouse (Times Books, $25)
This biography of the US Supreme Court Justice best known for writing the landmark Roe v. Wade decision provides fascinating insight not just into Harry A. Blackmun but also into the workings of the Supreme Court itself. (5/3/05)
THE SURVIVOR: BILL CLINTON IN THE WHITE HOUSE, by John F. Harris (Random House, $29.95)
This examination of the Clinton presidency by Washington Post reporter John F. Harris is a balanced account of a presidency that sometimes seemed most like a roller coaster ride. Harris offers vivid detail of the ups and downs of Clinton's two terms. (6/7/05)
MARK TWAIN: A LIFE, by Ron Powers (Free Press, $35)
Ron Powers has written extensively about Mark Twain in the past, but this biography excels in delivering up the restless, complex, enormously gifted Samuel Clemens as a living, breathing, three-dimensional being. (9/27/05)
MAO: THE UNKNOWN STORY, by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday (Knopf, $35)
This hefty volume, bristling with an enormous and impressive collection of primary sources, throws new light on the dark side of Mao Tse Tung, revealing him to be perhaps even more villainous than his detractors have claimed. Although the book's consistently biased tone and occasionally unsourced statements mar its achievement, this is a highly compelling read. (10/18/05)
THE RIVER OF DOUBT: THEODORE ROOSEVELT'S DARKEST JOURNEY, by Candice Millard (Doubleday, $26)
A stranger-than-fiction tale of a reckless voyage down an uncharted Brazilian river undertaken by Theodore Roosevelt after his humiliating 1912 presidential defeat, this story packs in adventure, warm human interchange, and fascinating descriptions of the Brazilian rain forest. (10/11/05)
TEAM OF RIVALS, by Doris Kearns Goodwin (Simon & Schuster, $35)
This immensely readable work examines the combination of political skill and largesse of human nature that Abraham Lincoln displayed when he turned his three chief political rivals into allies by inviting them to join his cabinet. Although Lincoln does not come across as a saint in this account, he remains a figure of both grit and generosity. (11/1/05)
1776, by David McCullough (Simon & Schuster, $32)
For George Washington's ragtag Continental Army, 1776 was a year of suffering, defeat, discouragement, and despair, and yet at the same time, a year of phenomenal courage and devotion. Noted historian David McCullough brings it all alive in this beautifully written and thoroughly researched book. (5/24/05)
JUDGMENT DAYS, by Nick Kotz (Houghton Mifflin, $26)
LBJ and Martin Luther King Jr. are at the center of this gripping tale of the civil rights movement in the United States. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nick Kotz includes new material from recently released telephone recordings of Johnson. (2/15/05)
SARAH'S LONG WALK, by Stephen Kendrick and Paul Kendrick (Beacon, $26)
Sarah Roberts entered history in 1848 at the age of 5 when her father - a free black tradesman - defied Boston officials and enrolled her in a school for white children. This book looks at the Roberts' battle and the subsequent lawsuit which, ironically, proved a setback for civil rights. (2/22/05)
RACING THE ENEMY: STALIN, TRUMAN, AND THE SURRENDER OF JAPAN, by Tsuyoshi Hasegawa (Belknap Press, $29.95)
To fully understand Truman's decision to drop an atomic bomb over Hiroshima, the tangled relationship between the Soviet Union and Japan needs to be better understood, argues historian Tsuyoshi Hasegawa in this controversial but illuminating examination of events surrounding Japan's surrender in 1945. (8/2/05)
THE FATE OF AFRICA, by Martin Meredith (Public Affairs, $35)
Veteran Africa observer Martin Meredith strides through half a century of the tumult of African independence. His style is broad rather than deep, but he puts together a compelling and cohesive narrative essential for those who hope to better understand both Africa's past and its prospects for the future. (7/12/05)
IN THE DOORS OF THE SEA: WHERE WAS GOD IN THE TSUNAMI?, by David Bentley Hart (Eerdmans, $14)
When the tsunami pounded southern Asia last December, David Bentley Hart tackled the title question, first in a Wall Street Journal article, and then later fleshed out in book form. It's a slim volume but a penetrating read, raising questions perhaps not frequently enough included in the public debate. (9/20/05)
PRAYER: A HISTORY, by Philip and Carol Zaleski (Houghton Mifflin, $29.95)
These two Smith College professors offer a thoughtful, probing look at prayer. They trace its presence throughout time and across cultures and seek to distinguish between different types of prayer. The book manages to shy away from advocacy even while offering a sensitive and respectful treatment of its topic. (11/22/05)
TWO LIVES, by Vikram Seth (HarperCollins, $27.95)
Indian writer Vikram Seth examines the lives of his uncle, an Indian dentist, and his wife, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany. Seth chronicles their pasts and his own relationship with the couple. (10/25/05)
A YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING, by Joan Didion (Knopf, $23.95)
Writing is what Joan Didion does best, so it is not surprising that when she lost her husband of almost 40 years, writer John Gregory Dunne, she turned her grief into words. The book she produced, which records her thoughts and feelings as she grieves, won a 2005 National Book Award. (10/18/05)
TWILIGHT OF LOVE: TRAVELS WITH TURGENEV, by Robert Dessaix (Shoemaker & Hoard, $24)
Against the backdrop of a trip through Europe, Australian writer Robert Dessaix shapes a meditation on the ways in which passion transforms itself into a different type of love later in life. (8/23/05)
THE ACCIDENTAL MASTERPIECE: ON THE ART OF LIFE AND VICE VERSA: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa, by Michael Kimmelman (Penguin, $24.95)
Within daily life is found the very stuff of a masterpiece. Or so insists Michael Kimmelman, chief art critic of The New York Times, in this charming meditation on the nature of art. Readable and rich, the book tells stories of artists both well-known and obscure, and makes its points with wisdom and with wit. (8/30/05)
NEW ART CITY, by Jed Perl (Knopf, $35)
New York City: It's where the great artists of the mid-twentieth century found one another, and according to art critic Jed Perl, the city itself has had a leading role in art history. This panoramic book sheds new light on the men and women and the array of forces that converged in New York at that time. (10/4/05)
LIKE A ROLLING STONE: BOB DYLAN AT THE CROSSROADS, by Greil Marcus (PublicAffairs, $25)
In a sometimes hyperbolic but sincere paean to Bob Dylan's masterpiece "Like a Rolling Stone," music writer/historian Greil Marcus chronicles what it was like to be alive that summer and how it felt to hear that song for the very first time. (4/12/05)
ROOM FULL OF MIRRORS: A BIOGRAPHY OF JIMI HENDRIX, by Charles R. Cross (Hyperion, $24.95)
Flashy, raucous, sad - Jimi Hendrix's brief life was all of the above, but it was also seminal to music history. Charles R. Cross's biography of Hendrix does not break new ground but does skillfully illuminate the details of Hendrix's career. (8/2/05)
THE BEATLES: THE BIOGRAPHY, by Bob Spitz (Little, Brown and Company, $29.95)
If you like your Beatles cute, cuddly, and dusted with magic, this is not your book. But if you want insights on the men behind the mop-tops, Bob Spitz offers a compelling read, with surprises even for those who think they already know the whole story. (11/8/05)
The Last Coach: A Life of Paul 'Bear' Bryant, by Allen Barra (W.W. Norton, $26.95)
In Alabama "Bear Bryant" was as good as royalty. This new biography examines the life and achievements of one of college football's most-winning coaches. (9/13/05)
THREE NIGHTS IN AUGUST, by Buzz Bissinger (Doubleday, $25)
Tony LaRussa, manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, tells his own story to Buzz Bissinger as he focuses on a pivotal August 2003 series between the Cardinals and their despised arch rivals the Chicago Cubs. It's a tale full of baseball lore and a good deal of humanity as well. (9/2/05)
Since I became the Monitor's book editor June, I've heard the same question over and over:
Is it the best job ever?
My answer: Just about. Contrary to what some imagine, I don't spend all day reading, but I do read at least two or three books a week, and I enjoy most of them. Of course, among these I do have my favorites so to answer the other most frequently asked question ("What have you read that you really liked?"), of all the books listed here, the following were my top 10 favorite on-the-job reading experiences this year:
1. Two Lives, by Vikram Seth The characters were so incredibly ordinary and yet so extraordinary at the same time.
2. The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey, by Candice Millard . What's not to like when history, adventure, and good writing all come together?
3. Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, by Jane Smiley . I couldn't get enough of that reading list.
4. The Painted Drum, by Louise Erdrich . Erdrich is a truly skilful novelist.
5. The Accidental Masterpiece, by Michael Kimmelman . It's easy to love a book that finds art everywhere.
6. Mao: The Unknown Story, by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday . A chilling but very compelling read.
7.The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion . Once again, a writer who really knows her craft.
8. Mark Twain: A Life, by Mark Powers . It was as if Twain were in the room with me.
9. Twilight of Love: Travels with Turgenev, by Robert Dessaix . I had no chance to amble through Europe this summer - except when I read this book.
10.Marley & Me, by John Grogan . What can I say? I have a dog.